Last year saw the canonisation of Greta Thunberg. Her formal elevation to sainthood came as no surprise. She had already achieved an untouchable status. Her utterances such as: ‘I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day’ (Jan. 2019, World Economic Forum) and ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you’ (Sept. 2019, UN General Assembly) have been received with hushed awe (though I confess their vacuity makes me think that the wag who said Greta learned all her climate science from the Ice Age films might be correct).
Around the world national leaders and celebrities have fought each other to pander to her. The United Nations received her insulting address with rapt attention. Her canonisation was not of course conferred upon her by the Roman Catholic Church (which doesn’t do this until someone has died). Rather it was the liberal secular equivalent of sainthood she was granted when Time magazine declared her to be the 2019 Person of the Year, making her at 16 the youngest recipient ever of this honour.
Salvation for planet earth
She was honoured for her effective (in the sense of getting lots of media coverage) proclamation of the current secular gospel, a message of salvation and of sin, a message of doom and yet, perhaps, of hope. But hers is not a ‘gospel’ of ‘good news’. And it certainly is not a message of grace. Rather, St Greta of Thunberg proclaims that the planet needs saving from our many sins against the environment. ‘Save the planet’ is the gospel message which she and many others proclaim.
We are told that unless we make radical changes to our lifestyles, such as abandoning motorised vehicles, stopping planes flying food around the world and removing plastic wrapping from our food products, then our planet is doomed and mankind is doomed along with it. Each and every day we sin against our planet. We fail to separate light from dark plastics, we drive to work instead of taking the bus, we use disposable nappies instead of recyclable towelled nappies, and throw away plastic packaging willy nilly.
Our children’s children, even our children if you believe the most pessimistic of these doom-merchants, are facing environmental catastrophe which will render the planet unfit for human habitation as it overheats, oceans rise and crops are ruined. The food-chain will be destroyed as tonnes of plastic and toxic chemicals dumped by multinational corporations on land and sea wipe out living creatures all over the world. The only hope of salvation for planet earth and for the future of the human race is to atone for these our many sins by making radical lifestyle changes, involving a wholesale abandonment of the capitalist free-market prosperity we have long enjoyed. So how do we as evangelicals respond to this secular gospel?
While this modern gospel of environmental catastrophe and potential salvation might grate upon us, we nonetheless recognise some truth in it, don’t we? Christians have long taught that we have a responsibility to be stewards of the earth. At creation, God gave us rule over the planet and thus care for it. We are not free to use it as we wish and ruin it. Thus recycling and re-using our food-packaging and reducing our use of motorised vehicles are good, responsible approaches. We should, in these and a myriad of other ways, show environmental instincts (I am indebted to Dan Peters for this phrase and some thoughts in this article).
Again, we agree with St Greta that our planet is doomed unless we make major changes. But, crucially, we also add that our planet is doomed even if we do make such changes! This is what the Bible teaches, isn’t it? It is doomed because of our many real sins against our Creator, not because of ‘sins’ against the planet.
So I should clarify the language of sin I have used earlier. However much Extinction Rebellion might protest against carbon-based transportation on the roads and railways, it is not a sin to drive a car and emit carbon dioxide. St Greta might urge you not to use disposable nappies, but it is not a sin to use them. We should only call something sin which God calls sin. The only sins are transgressions of commandments given by God. And there are no commandments against flying in an aeroplane or using plastic bags for your shopping, are there? God does not command us to recycle or to walk to work.
Our liberty as Christians should not be infringed by environmentalists, Christian or otherwise. The importance of our stewardship of the planet should not be extended to create a new Green moral code. We should cultivate our environmental instincts to reduce practices which might damage the world in which we live, but we should never elevate such lifestyle practices to the status of God-given rules.
And again, when I say that we recognise some truth in the environmental message, what we recognise is actually a distorted truth, isn’t it? Yes, we were given rule over the earth in the original covenant with Adam at creation and told to multiply and fill it and turn the whole planet into a paradise like the garden of Eden. But then came sin. And the curse. And so we are no longer in that original situation, are we? After the Fall, there is no hope for this planet in its current form. It will pass away, it will be purified by fire (2 Peter 3) and transformed into a new earth. This is the unavoidable fate of the earth and no amount of environmental activism or radical, Green lifestyle changes will alter this. Our hope is not for this planet’s salvation. Our hope is for this new earth with a new heaven in which righteousness dwells. That is the biblical message, isn’t it? And it is very good news.
Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.